The writer Norman Douglas described with passion very special sea currents which in the Mediterranean sea, are constantly moving towards the Campania: those currents also took with them the remains of the mermaid called Parthenope, until the place where Naples would have born.
From the panoramic street “via Petrarca”, to Posilippo and from the noble heart of today’s metropolis, the blue currents ripple the contours of what is both a guache and a novel: the near and far contours of Ischia, Procida, Capo Miseno, Capri, the Sorrentine peninsula; and the “postcard” of the Vesuvio, the urban labyrinth revealed by the eastern tours of the city, the palaces, the monuments and the churches of a huge old town with its fortified offshoots, from the “Certosa di San Martino” (Charterhouse of San Martino) and the Castel Sant’Elmo to the Maschio Angioino (Castel nuovo), to the Castel dell’Ovo (“Egg Castle”). The contemporary traveler’s imaginary is lost in the alleyways, after having crossed Piazza Plebiscito, slightly touching the Royal Palace, the San Carlo theatre, and via Toledo, aiming to the surprising green spaces of Capodimonte, the gardens, the parks of Posilippo and the yellow tuff cliffs. The moving photography of a “seaside town with inhabitants”, emblematic definition of Luigi Compagnone, tells the story of a mermaid finally adult and Europan who found in her sea, the impulse to feel the “crossroad” of progressive routes. Naples is linked to the world, with the help of the incredible creative, handmade, classy, non holographic heritage of the “Neapolitan style” which has crossed the borders. It is the sign of an originality which does not renounce, however, to reflect on the reconquered seafront with its well-known beaches and the evening walks in Mergellina. Last but not least: the mandolin and the serenade; and, of course : the coffee, the “sfogliatella” and the “babà”, celebrating the best pizza ever. Beyond the stereotypes, time in Naples is not always the same, and the quick changes is the sign of an activism that we can clearly notice in the versatility of the universities of humanistic culture and scientific research, in the literary excitement and in the artistic impulse showed in the stations of the new subway, and in the modernity of the classical style kept by theatrical, musical and worldly events.
The heart of Naples
The birth of the city dates back to the first half of the 5th century BC. At that time, Cumae, which has become the most important Greek colony on the coast after the transfert of the Chaldicians and the Eretrians who had settled in Pithekoussai (Ischia) moved its expansionist aims towards the south-east, giving life to the new city : ”Neapolis”. In fact, an older center was enlarged, “Palaepolis”, already inhabited by Rhodes people. The link with the large island of Aegean refers to myth of the foundation and the arrival of the remains of one of Ulysses’ enchanting mermaid, whose name was, in fact, Parthenope.
The essential itinerary cannot fail to have as a starting point the Piazza del Plebiscito, which is specially defined by the semi-elliptical portico of the Church of San Francesco di Paola and by the Royal Palace on the main sides; on the smaller sides, Palazzo Salerno and Palazzo della Prefettura stand out, while in the adjacent Piazza Trieste e Trento there is the Church of San Ferdinando which completes a monumental circuit of the area with the San Carlo Theatre and the Umberto I Gallery.
The Church of San Francesco di Paola, with a central plan with a dome recalling to the Pantheon’s one in Rome, was built between 1817 and 1846 as an ex voto for the return of Ferdinand of Bourbon to the throne of Naples, after the Napoleonic uprisings: an imposing sign of a rediscovered power. It dominates the Piazza del plebiscito on which the bronze equestrian statues of Charles III and Ferdinand I overlook.
The Royal Palace is the symbol of the Spanish greatness and it was built on a design by the great architect Domenico Fontana, in a strategic place, not far from the port and in front of a perfect flat space for military parades and large gatherings of people. It was 1600 and two years earlier Fernandez Ruiz de Castro was appointed Naples viceroy by Philip III. The main facade (169 meters long), the courtyard and part of the interiors keep the seventeenth-century layout, but over time numerous modifications took place, under the bourbons and until the Napoleonic period with Joachim Murat, for over two-hundred years, with the involvement of other well-known architects such as Luigi Vanvitelli and Ferdinando Fuga. In 1734, Naples became the capital of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies and Ferdinand IV gave a strong impulse to the completion of the palace by building a Court Theatre, created in 1768 by Ferdinando Fuga, and the eastern arm, which is used as a National Library since 1927. Walking through the Throne Room, the Ambassadors Room, the Royal Chapel, you enter in a context of eighteenth-century splendor: furniture worked by Neapolitan ebonies, decorations, carpets and tapestries of French manufacture and of the Naples Royal Tapestry, paintings of the sixteeeth and the seventeenth century and works from the Caravaggio period, porcelain, furnishings and artistic artifacts of absolute value.
Connected to the Royal Palace, there is the beautiful San Carlo Theatre, the oldest opera house in the world, built by the will of Charles of Bourbon and inaugurated on 4th of November 1737, the day of his name day. The project was drawn up by the architects Medrano and Carasale. A masterpiece. A fire devastated it in 1812, but it was rebuilt by Antonio Niccolini, who equipped it with 70 meter deep circular shafts to improve the acoustics. The first Italian dance school was founded there and hosted many of the first performances of important works by Rossini, Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti. It can host 1380 spectators.
In front of the theatre, there is a traditional gathering point, the Umberto I Gallery, which evidences, with its cross plan, a Neo-Renaissance structure typical of the late Nineteenth century: in fact, it refers to the Vittorio Emanuele II Gallery in Milan. In the centre, there is a dome 56 meters high, while the four arms are surmounted by barrel vaults. The polycromatic marble floors with a central exedra represent the zodiac signs and the cardinal points.
At the exit, you enter via Toledo, which separates the port area from the Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Neighborhoods), the checkerboard housing unit which stretches up to the hill of the Vomero. Here the viceroy Pedro de Toledo placed the quarters of the Spanish army and today, in a jumble of picturesque alleys, among unique popular atmospheres, there is a slice of the Neapolitan identity.
But to proceed towards the unmissable itinerary in the immense historic centre of Naples, declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco, you need to reach the Piazza del Gesù Nuovo: it is the beginning of the heart of the Greek-Roman city, in a maze of streets and alleys which form perfect rectangular networks. The three Roman decumans cross with the hinges. Here Spaccanapoli starts, which is the rectilinear succession of Via Benedetto Croce, via San Biagio dei Librai and via Vicaria Vecchia.
Piazza del Gesù is characterised by the Spire of the Immacolata with, on the top, the statue of the Virgin: it was built in 1747 with the funds of a public collection promoted by the Jesuit Francesco Pepe. It has a rich decoration, an example of Baroque splendor which simbolised the religious power of the Jesuit order. The Jesuits, moreover, had purchased the fifteenth-century Sanseverino Palace, transforming it between 1584 and 1601 into the splendid Church of Gesù Nuovo. The Baroque portal incorporates the sixteenth-century one in white marble, which stands out against the grey background of the characteristic diamond-tipped ashlar facade of 1470. It is a Greek cross plan church with three naves and it is a triumph of Baroque style and culture, among polychrome marbles and frescoes such as the Francesco Solimena ones on the counter-facade: The expulsion of Heliodor from the Temple. The interiors were set up with the contribution of the major artists of the time active in Naples: in addition to Solimena, Luca Giordano, Cosimo Fanzago, Belisario Corenzio and many others.
A few meters away there is another place among Naples most fascinating ones: the Monumental Complex of Santa Chiara with the basilica and the monastery which was among the first to be built in the historic centre. The Angevin sovereigns at the beginning of the fourteenth century assigned it to house the family tombs. You can access the church courtyard, a splendid example of Provençal Gothic, through an imposing fourteenth-century portal, while the bell tower keeps the original Gothic forms which are inside the basilica, completely restored after the fire and the effects of the bombings of 1943. Twenty chapels (ten on each side) overlook the single nave of the church while at the centre of the presbytery there are the remains of the tomb of the literate king Robert of Anjou (it was the largest medieval funeral monument). The Choir of the Nuns was decorated in 1328 by Giotto (only few fragments are preserved): from here you access the garden and the famous majolica Cloister of the Clarisse, a work from 1739, by Domenico Antonio Vaccaro, creator of the decoration of the seats with majolica riggiole (Neapolitan dialect term for “tiles”) signed by Donato and Giuseppe Massa: scenes of the fields and seascapes are depicted that intersect harmoniously with the vine shoots and lemons of the pergola, in a triumph of colors between blue, green and yellow. The Museum of the Opera of Santa Chiara preserves objects, sculptures and decorative elements of the Franciscan small city: it was obtained from the remains of a Roman thermal building from the first century.
From Via Benedetto Croce, you can find shops, workshops, in a succession of colours and perfumes and deep sensations, very modern, young and ancient together. On the way, you can see Palazzo Filomarino, the scenes of clashes and destruction during the Neapaolitan revolution of 1799. Don Benedetto Croce lived and died in the palace. He was one of the greatest voices of Italian culture of every era.
Piazza San Domenico Maggiore is defined by a choir of noble palaces : Palazzo Casacalenda, Palazzo Petrucci, Palazzo Corigliano, Palazzo Sangro di Sansevero. The Spire of San Domenico Maggiore is a crucial point of reference: it was built after the plague of 1656 in Baroque style (it is a work by Fanzago and Vaccaro)
San Domenico Maggiore is one of the most important churches for its antiquity and artistic wealth. It was frequented by Saint Thomas of Aquinas, Giovanni Pontano, Tommaso Campanella and Giordano Bruno. Built between 1283 and 1324, it has been restored several times, In the sixteenth century the Dominicans, with their erudite tradition, introduced the teaching of Greek, civil law and canon law to what had become the seat of the university. The main entrance of the church consists of a fourteenth-century portal inserted between two Renaissance chapels, while the interior with three naves with side chapels has Neo-gothic decorations superimposed in the mid-nineteenth century to the sixteenth century ones. It houses works by Luca Giordano, Mattia Preti, Francesco Solimena, Pietro Cavallini.
Hidden in an alleyway, there is the famous, small Sansevero Chapel, which houses the works, the alchemies and the creations of the brilliant Raimondo di Sangro, Sansevero Prince, writer, man of letters, inventor and experimenter, as well as a being a great master of the Masonry: he restructured the family sepulchral chapel in 1710-1770 following a complex symbolic iconography. The statues of Veiled Modesty, of the Disillusionment and the sculpture of the famous Vailed Christ by Giuseppe Sammartino has an exceptional mysterious charm.
Beyond Piazzetta Nilo close to the university area, via san Biagio dei Librai remembers a centuries-old history of typographies and print houses which animated cultural life. You can enter among stands and small shops, touching palaces such as Monte di Pietà and Palazzo Carafa; looking at the ancient convent of Saints Severino and Sossio (later State Archives of Naples) which at the end of the sixteenth century housed Torquato Tasso, until you cross San Gregorio Armeno, the rutilant nativity street, the gigantic outdoor corks exhibition, wooden and papier-mâché models which during Christmas time becomes a synthesis of the Neapolitan tradition. The market of the shepherds is the most colored and original in the world. The Church of San Gregorio Armeno, with the monastery, also deserves a meditated visit: the first nucleus is from the 8th century on the remains of a Pagan temple. The renovation is of 1580.
The plan of the church is with a single nave, the carved wooden ceiling is only one of the many artistic aspects of absolute importance that you can admire inside. The frescoes of the counter-facade are by Luca Giordano and represent the story of the Armenian nuns, the founders. In the fifth chapel there are the relics of Santa Patrizia , a much venerated saint by Naples people: she is one of the patron saints of the city and every Tuesday the miracle of the liquefaction of the blood is repeated.
Going up, you arrive at the central Decumanus, via dei Tribunali, and you must stop at the Church of San Lorenzo Maggiore: it is here that on 30th of March 1336 Boccaccio met his Fiammetta, Maria d’Aquino at that time, Robert of Anjou’s daughter. Charles I of Anjou had it built from 1226 and was finished in 1324, but it was modified several times. The magnificent shapes of the interior, in terms of height width , are typical of the French Cistercian Gothic: a triumphal arche separates the nave from the transept. The excavations in the cloister have brought to light the Greek, Roman and Medieval stratifications. In the refectory hall, Neapolitan deputies and municipal authorities gathered, and the place became known as Tribunal of San Lorenzo.
We have to remember that the whole area corresponds to the acropolis of the Greco-Roman city and the thousand-year-old housing elements are still visible almost everywhere, between Early Christian basilicas and medieval churches superimposed.
From the nearby and close Piazza di San Gaetano, you access the Underground Naples, the excursus in the bowels of the city (the other entrance is in Piazza Trieste and Trento), an enveloping and fascinating trip among mythes, legends and much more, in a labyrinth of tunnels, cisterns and cavities which extends under the whole historic centre, for several kilometers.
Not far away, the Church of the Souls of Purgatory in Arco, at the intersection with via Nilo and via Atri, is a landmark in the proteiform circuit of popular devotion: for the women of the neighborhood, Blessed Lucia, who is venerated here, is the symbol of fertility. The church dates back to 1616, when it was built for the suffrage of “restless “souls. The decoration with skulls and crossbones together with hourglasses is of Spanish taste: a symbology of anthropological interest is linked to the reasons of interest of the Church of San Pietro ad Aram and the cemetery of Fontanelle alla Sanità. The Baroque works of art are noteworthy.
Further, there is the Complex of San Pietro a Maiella which houses the glorious Music Conservatory, one of the illustrious in Italy. It boasts an extraordinary specialised library among the mort important in the world for the autograph materials.
From the nearby Piazza Bellini, we move to port’Alba, the chosen place for bookstores, up to Piazza Dante. Or you can chose to continue along Via Costantinopoli (with its antique shops) until you reach the National Archaeological Museum, among the cultural boasts of the city and among the absolute most important for the classical antiquity, not only in Europe. Through an exceptional series of finds, from the pre-roman Campania to the testimonies of the Magna Grecia, from the important Egyptian section to the testimonies of Pompeii, to the extraordinary Farnese collection, an unforgettable historical itinerary takes place. The Meridiana Hall and the Secret Cabinet with the collection of erotic themes of Roman era are a must-see.
On the large main street of Via Forio, moving towards the Albergo dei Poveri (Poor Hotel) with the imposing façade signed by Ferdinando Fuga, you can observe the monument wall of the Botanical Garden. It was established in 1807, with a decree by Giuseppe Bonaparte, as the Royal Garden of Plants: it is connected to the University and is very rich in collections and species.
Returning back to Via Tribunali, choosing to continue eastwards, you reach Pio Monte della Misericordia, among the oldest institutions of assistance and charity the city founded in 1602: it houses a rich collection of art works in the Art Gallery and, especially, in the church, the Seven Works of Mercy, the canvas of large dimensions which Caravaggio painted between 1606 and 1607. The church has an octagonal plant, with seven altars surmounted by as many frescoes which refer to the corporal works of mercy.
A fundamental diversion is the one leading to the Cathedral (Duomo). It was built in Gothic-provençal style and included the early christian cathedral of Santa Restituta and the Baptistery of San Giovanni Fonte of the 4th century. Inside, the splendid mosaic by Lello da Orvieto with the Madonna and Saints Gennaro and Restituta: it is from 1322. The facade of the new cathedral is Neo-Gothic, but the portals are form the fifteenth century; in the central lunette there is the Madonna and Child by Tino da Camaino. It is a Latin cross plan with three naves, and it is a real art gallery, a representation, in fact, of the thousand-year old stratifications of the city. The Minutolo Chapel is considered one of the most interesting examples of Gothic in Naples (the floor is mosaic with animals). The Royal Chapel (Real Cappella) of the Treasure of San Gennaro was built following a vow offered by the city to the patron saint after the plague epidemic of 1656. A Baroque masterpiece: here are kept the ampoules with the blood of San Gennaro, in an extraordinary contest of sacred decorations, silver, candelabras and reliquaries, and the fourteenth century bust studded with precious stones, which is exhibited in May and in September during the blood liquefaction ceremony. The frescoes of the dome are by Giovanni Lanfranco; the ones of the vault, of the lunettes and the hackles are by Domenico Zampieri also known as il Domenichino. The oil on copper on the median altar representing San Gennaro who comes out of the furnace unharmed is by Jusepe de Ribera. Near the chapel, a must-see is the Museum of the Treasure of San Gennaro, an exhibition of jewel collections, sacred furnishing, artistic fabrics, statues and paintings of very high historic and artistic value. The silver collection is of particular interest, with pieces from 1305 to the contemporary age, all Neapolitan masters works.
With an ideal jump we move to the seafront of Chiaia. Among aristocratic palaces and art galleries, trendy shops and glimpses of elegance, is is marked by the Villa Comunale, a green oasis, which was the Bourbon Royal Palace wanted by Ferdinand IV who asked Carlo Vanvitelli to design it. It its the first public garden in Naples, inaugurated in 1781: a Royal Villa with pines, palm trees and eucalyptus trees, between Neo-Classical busts and fountains, on a path which, in the centre, sees standing out the Art Nouveau structure of the glass and cast iron sound box. The Anton Dohrn Zoologic Station, with the oldest Aquarium in Europe, is a centre of studies and research of international standing. It was founded in 1872 by the German naturalist Anton Dohrn, who intended to divulgate the knowledge of its marine flora and fauna.a.
If you choose to continue in the “salotto buono” of Naples from Piazza San Pasquale, you go for shopping in Via dei Mille (where there is the Pan : the Palace of Arts of Naples in the eighteenth century Palazzo Roccella), Via Filangieri and Via Carlo Poerio up to Piazza dei Martiri, with a halo of alleys rich of art and design galleries, designer and antiquary shops.
If you continue on Riviera di Chiaia, on the seaside, however, there is the unmistakable Neo-classical facade of Villa Pignatelli, surrounded by a beautiful garden: inside the Prince Diego Pignatelli Cortes Museum is housed, while in the stables there is the Carriage Museum.
The promenade along the seafront continues to Mergellina with its touristic port, which is the “gateway” to the Posillipo hill, suggestive and made universal by the works of the famous nineteenth-century landscape painters of the Posillipo School. From the noble parks of the area there are several prestigious villas such as Villa Rosbery, the residence of the President of the Republic; Villa Pierce, the Donn’Anna Palace of the seventeenth century, an unfinished work by Cosimo Fanzago. A must-see, then, is the descent to the mythical hamlet of Marechiaro, a fishing village connected by a series of hairpin bends: here there is the mythical “finestrella” which remembers the song by Salvatore Di Giacomo. Finally, the village of Casale is also characteristic, and dates back to the thirteenth century, with its typical squares and alleys.
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED